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Multiparadigm Perspectives on Theory Building

Dennis A. Gioia; Evelyn Pitre

The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Oct., 1990), pp. 584-602.
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Tue Oct 9 04:46:43 2007

c Academy of Management Revlew,

1990,Vol. 15,No. 4,5&1-602

Multiparadigm Perspectives
on Theory Building
Pennsylvania State University

ccole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales
Traditional approaches to theory building are not entirely consistent
with the assumptions of alternative research paradigms that a r e now
assuming more prominence in organizational study. We argue for a
multiparadigm approach to theory building as a means of establishing correspondence between paradigms a n d theory-construction efforts. Because of the implications of the multiparadigm approach, we
also examine ways of bridging across blurred paradigm boundaries.
In addition, we explore a metaparadigm perspective that might allow disparate approaches to theory building to be considered together. Such a perspective can produce views of organizational phenomena that not only allow scholars to recognize inherent a n d irreconcilable theoretical differences, but also can encourage them to
adopt a more comprehensive view by accounting for those differences.
The most difficult thing in science, a s In other
fields, is to shake off accepted views. (Sarton,
1929 [19591 p. 88)
-George Sarton
The Civilization of the Renaissance

Dubin (1978) introduced the second edition of

his classic book on theory building with Sarton's
quote. Although Dubin's book was intended to
promote theory building according to the tenets
of traditional science, his use of Sarton's observation provides g r o u n d s for questioning
whether theory building in the social a n d organizational sciences has adhered to a goal of
shaking off accepted views in attempting to
build theory. We believe that it has not-in
great part because the wisdom inherent in the
quote has been bound up in a n overly constrained view of the nature of the theory-

building process itself. Traditional approaches

to theory building in organizational study have
tended to produce valuable, but nonetheless incomplete, views of organizational knowledge,
mainly because they have been predicated predominantly on the tenets of one major paradigm
(Kuhn, 1970) or way of understanding organizational phenomena. By now, however, the field
recognizes that the use of a n y single research
paradigm produces too narrow a view to reflect
the multifaceted nature of organizational reality
(Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Frost, 1980). Curiously,
however, theory-building discussions seem to
proceed a s if the principles of theory building
a r e somehow universal a n d transcendent
across disparate paradigms of thought a n d research. They a r e not. Because different paradigms a r e grounded in fundamentally different

assumptions, they produce markedly different

ways of approaching the building of theory.
Our purpose in this article is two-fold: (a) to
recommend a broader approach to theory
building that accounts for differing paradigmatic assumptions a n d (b) to discuss how multiple views created by different paradigms
might be linked, or at least juxtaposed, to yield a
more comprehensive view of organizational
phenomena. Our central thesis, that appropriate approaches to theory building depend on
the paradigmatic assumptions brought to bear
on a topic, derives from the belief that our field
has not developed adequate alternative upproaches to theory building that can account for
the multifaceted nature of organizational phenomena. The ramifications of this thesis lead us
first to explore the possibilities for limited bridging across paradigm boundaries and finally to
discuss ways that disparate a n d inherently irreconcilable theoretical views might be considered together to generate multiple perspectives
on central topics of concern.

The Paradigm Issue

Like all other fields of inquiry, organizational
study is paradigmatically anchored. A para-

digm is a general perspective or way of thinking

that reflects fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the nature of organizations (cf.
Kuhn, 1970; Lincoln, 1985). Scholars in our discipline are presently involved in a debate over
the distinctive contributions of knowledge, and
to knowledge, that arise from different philosophical views and conceptual paradigms (Burre11 & Morgan, 1979; Lincoln, 1985)(see also Astley & Van d e Ven, 1983; Rao & Pasmore, 1989).
This debate is perhaps most succinctly characterized according to differing fundamental assumptions about the nature of organizational
phenomena (ontology),the nature of knowledge
about those phenomena (epistemology),a n d the
nature of ways of studying those phenomena
(methodology). Burrell a n d Morgan ( 1979) have
organized these differences along objectivesubjective a n d regulation-radical change dimensions, which yields a 2 x 2 matrix comprising four different research paradigms (see Figure 1).
In this representation, the functionalist paradigm is characterized by a n objectivist view of
the organizational world with a n orientation toward stability or maintenance of the status quo;
the interpretive paradigm is characterized by a

Radical Change





Figure 1. Burrell and Morgan's (1979) four paradigms.

more subjectivist view, also with a n apparent

concern with regulation, or at least a lack of concern with changing the status quo (see Morgan
& Smircich, 1980, for a n in-depth comparison of
these two paradigms); the radical humanist paradigm also is typified by a subjectivist view, but
with a n ideological orientation toward radically
changing constructed realities; and, finally, the
radical structuralist paradigm is typified by a n
objectivist stance, with a n ideological concern
for the radical change of structural realities.
The modern study of organizations has been
driven mainly by social science variations of
natural science models (cf. Audet, Landry, &
Dery, 1986; Behling, 1980). Consequently, debates about theory building a n d contributions to
theory have been confined, for the most part,

within the bounds of the functionalist paradigm.

Organizational science has been guided predominantly by the assumption that the nature of
organizations is a basically objective one that is
"out there" awaiting impartial exploration a n d
discovery. Hence, we have tended to operate by
using a deductive approach to theory building,
specifying hypotheses deemed appropriate for
the organizational world a n d testing them
against hypothesis-driven data via statistical
analyses. A rendering of Burrell and Morgan's
paradigm matrix that depicts the relative dominance of functionalism in organizational study is
shown in Figure 2.
The assumptions of the functionalist paradigm, however, become problematic when subjective views of social and organizational pheI





Figure 2. A representation of the dominance of functionalism in organizational theory and research.

nomena a r e adopted or when there is a concern

with transformational change. Suddenly, the
existence of social "facts" and the assumption of
stability are called into doubt. The study of phenomena such a s sensemaking, meaning construction, power, a n d conflict becomes very
awkward to handle using any immutable objectivist framework. What is "out there" becomes
very much related to interpretations made "in
here" (internal to both the organization members under study a n d the researchers conducting the study). Likewise, when a person adopts
a value for challenging the status quo, the implicit assumption of stability also becomes inappropriate. What is stable becomes a target for
Scholars have increasingly called into question the general appropriateness of the dominant "normal science" paradigm (Kuhn, 1970),
which typically has been assumed in organizational study (Lincoln, 1985; Rorty, 1987). Knowledge generation is often best construed a s a rhetorical process wherein the nature of knowledge
is inextricably tied to assumptions and vocabularies used to communicate ideas a n d a p proaches to study (cf. Nelson, Megill, & McCloskey, 1987; Rao & Pasmore, 1989). Rhetoric, theory building, a n d knowledge a r e therefore
essentially epistemic (cf. Cherwitz, 1977; Scott,
1967, 1977)-in other words, they are paradigmbased. The upshot of this recognition is that we
c a n no longer simply a r g u e that positivist1
functionalist theory building applies everywhere with some adjustments and let it go at
that. There a r e major implications for theory
building that arise from these paradigm differences.

The Theory Building Issue

We broadly define theory a s any coherent description or explanation of observed or experienced phenomena. This atypically broad definition is necessary to encompass the wide scope of
theoretical representations found in the alternative paradigms. Theory building refers to the

process or cycle by which such representations

are generated, tested, a n d refined. Approaches
to theory building that a r e grounded in appropriate paradigmatic assumptions a r e bettersuited to the study of those organizational phenomena that are consistent with such ground
assumptions (e.g., attempts to describe the efficacy of one production process over another are
better represented by theories grounded in objectivistlfunctional assumptions, whereas attempts to describe the social construction of cultural norms are better represented by theories
rooted in subjectivist/interpretive assumptions).
The grounding of theory in paradigm-appropriate assumptions helps researchers to avoid
the common tendency to try to force-fit functionalist theory-building techniques a s a "universal"
We want to emphasize that we are not advocating the dismissal of traditional positivist theory building a n d deductive approaches. Far
from it. Such approaches clearly are relevant
when issues are defined according to their basic
assumptions. However, using different theorybuilding approaches to study disparate issues is
a better way of fostering more comprehensive
portraits of complex organizational phenomena.
At a basic level, then, we advocate a focus on
paradigm-based theory building. Otherwise,
we will continue tacitly to operate out of elaborate modifications of prior hypothetical deductions that are not necessarily appropriate to the
phenomena studied. In addition, we will continue to admit only the theoretical perspectives
derived from a single paradigm, thus restricting
our basis for constructing a n organizational science that is not only eclectic, but original a s
Given our multiparadigm perspective, we believe it would be useful for theory building to be
viewed not a s a search for the truth, but a s more
of a search for comprehensiveness stemming
from different worldviews. This stance implies
that the provincialism that comes with paradigm
confinement might instead be turned toward the
production of more complete views of organiza-

tional phenomena via multiparadigm consideration.


and Theory-Building Approaches

To provide some example of how each of the

paradigms shown in Figure 1 offers different
treatments of related issues, we will use the general concept of structure a s a running theme.
For instance, from a functionalist perspective,
organizational structure is usually viewed a s a
stable, objective characteristic; from a n interpretive perspective structuring is often viewed
a s a socially constructed, ongoing process of accomplishment; from a radical humanist perspective deep structure (more accurately, the reification of deep structuring) is frequently seen
a s a subjective construction of those in power
that should be exposed and changed; and, finally, from a radical structuralist perspective,
social class structures are considered a s objective realities that demand examination a n d radical change. We begin with the interpretive paradigm a n d proceed clockwise (see Figure 1).
Theory Building in the Interpretive Paradigm
The interpretive paradigm is based on the
view that people socially and symbolically construct and sustain their own organizational realities (cf. Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Morgan &
Smircich, 1980). Therefore, the goal of theory
building in the interpretive paradigm is to generate descriptions, insights, and explanations of
events so that the system of interpretations a n d
meaning, a n d the structuring a n d organizing
processes, are revealed. The structures that are
disclosed are the outcomes of rule-based processes that lead to particular interpretations (cf.
Agar, 1986).Individuals develop patterned relationships that serve a s heuristics a n d symbolic
forms that represent "structuring" influences or
occasions for structuring (cf. Barley, 1986; Mehan, 1978; Mehan & Wood, 1975; Ranson, Hinings, & Greenwood, 1980).
Interpretive theory building tends to be more
inductive in nature. Through this process, re-

searchers attempt to account for phenomena

with a s few a priori ideas a s possible, which
implies that existing theories about structuring
processes are often accounted for relatively late
in the theory-building process (if at all). Strong
precautions frequently a r e taken to prevent
emerging theories from being biased toward, or
contaminated by, existing theories.
The basic stance toward theory building is
one of becoming part of the evolving events
studied, that is, to see from the perspective of the
organization members experiencing the structuring processes. The interpretive researcher
collects data that are relevant to the informants
a n d attempts to preserve their unique representations. Analysis begins during data collection
and typically uses coding procedures to discern
patterns in the (usually) qualitative data so that
descriptive codes, categories, taxonomies, or interpretive schemes that a r e adequate at the
level of meaning of the informants can be established. Thereafter, analysis, theory generation,
and further data collection go hand in hand.
Thus, the theory generation process is typically
iterative, cyclical, a n d nonlinear. Through this
process, tentative speculations about organizational structuring processes are confirmed or
disconfirmed by further consultation with informants. Subsequently, revisions a n d modifications are likely to occur before a grounded, substantive, mid-range theory is proposed (cf. Glaser, 1978; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987)
(see also Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 1984).
Theory Building in the Radical
Humanist Paradigm

Theory building in radical humanism is similar to that of interpretivism, but there is the important distinction of having a more critical or
evaluative stance. The goal of theory is to free
organization members from sources of domination, alienation, exploitation, and repression by
critiquing the existing social structure with the
intent of changing it. Critical theory (cf. Giddens, 1982) is a prototypical example that demonstrates the paradigm's theory-building char-

acteristics. Critical theorists focus on two levels

of understanding: a surface level a n d a deepstructure level, wherein the underlying sources
of a given reality are presumed to reside. Major
attention is given to the ways that power-holders
(e.g., management) influence structuring processes that become part of a reified, takenfor-granted way of seeing. Critical theorists look
at the ways that reified deep structures embedded in the status quo affect human action (Putnam, 1983).
In this paradigm, theory building is best
viewed a s having a political agenda (Rosen,
1985), because the purposes of theory are to examine the legitimacy of the social consensus on
meaning, to uncover communicative distortions,
a n d to educate individuals about the ways in
which distortions occur (Forester, 1983; Sartre,
1943). Whereas proponents of interpretive theory building focus on how a particular social
reality is constructed and maintained, radical
humanists focus on why it is so constructed a n d
ask whose interests are served by the construction and sublimation to the deep-structure level.
The critical perspective implies different kinds
of research questions and, thus, different theorybuilding approaches, a s exemplified by Burawoy's (1979)insightful inversion of a usual question such a s "Why do workers restrict output?"
(a question representing managerial interests),
to a question like "Why do workers work a s
hard a s they do?" (a question representing
worker interests) (cited in Deetz & Kersten, 1983).
Representations of countervailing views a r e
thus presented in theoretical terms, a n d resolution of the competing interests often occurs via
dialectical methods (Benson, 1977).
Within this paradigm hypothesis testing is
rare, and even literature reviews are not a central characteristic of theory-building efforts. Although theory generation is often grounded in
specific instances a n d situations, it also is based
on a n article of faith that new theory should be
geared mainly to the goal of radical change and
liberation from the psychic prison of the organi-

zation (cf. Morgan, 1980, 1986). Activism is the

watchword; knowledge production without intention to act is deemed worthless (Deetz, 1985).
Critical theorists have been indicted for failing
to engage in renewed theory-generation efforts
in favor of a "propensity to reinterpret existing
research rather than collect new data" (Deetz,
1985, p. 131). Often, then, the theory-building
process is limited to reinterpretations of existing
deep-structure accounts. The presentation of
theory in this paradigm is meant to be persuasive, in that theories are intended to serve a s a
motivating impetus for change toward a n ideologically laden viewpoint.

Theory Building in the Radical

Structuralist Paradigm
Theory building in radical structuralism is related to that of radical humanism by virtue of the
shared ideology for change, or perhaps more
dramatically, for transformation. A more macro
focus on existing societal class or industry structures is of prime concern. Such structures, however, are seen a s objectively real a n d are taken
a s instruments of domination (cf. Morgan, 1980,
1986) for higher members of the social hierarchy
over lower ones. For radical structuralists, organizational conditions are historically specified.
Societal a n d organizational functioning is seen
a s constrained by social forces stemming from
existing dysfunctional structural relationships,
which can only be changed through some form
of conflict. Because of the asymmetry of these
social forces, people are said to have lost control
of the means of production (and reproduction) of
the material, social, a n d cultural worlds (LeviStrauss, 1958; Turner, 1983).
Historical, dialectical, and critical modes of inquiry are used in theory generation (although
the term theory rarely occurs in this literature,
even though it is evident that theoretical frameworks are developed). The goal of radical structuralist theory is to understand, explain, criticize, a n d act on the structural mechanisms that
exist in the organizational world, with the ulti-

mate goal of transforming them through collective resistance a n d radical change (Heydebrand, 1983). The process by which this theoretical intent is accomplished is initially grounded
in observations about the oppressive nature of
the societal and organizational world, but, more
frequently, it is defined by a cyclical consideration of argument and evidence. Theory building involves the rethinking of data in light of
refinements of viewpoints; it also involves attempting to recast contextually bound situations
into some broader context (Benson, 1977).
For the radical structural theorist, like the radical humanist, the theory-building process is a
pronounced exercise in argumentation a n d
marshalling of historical evidence. Theorybuilding efforts are mainly persuasive constructions about structural features and their implications for the purpose of fomenting transformative
change (cf. Jermier, 1985). Paradoxically, regarding a paradigm devoted to change, there is
little evidence that radical structuralists are inclined toward changing their own theories;
thus, there are few actual attempts at new theory generation.

Theory Building in the

Functionalist Paradigm
The functionalist paradigm seeks to examine
regularities a n d relationships that lead to generalizations a n d (ideally) universal principles.
Organizational structure is taken a s a n objective
phenomenon that is external to, and independent of, organization members. Functionalist
theory usually carries a n implicit orientation toward a managerial perspective a n d maintenance of the organizational status quo. Organizational structures are seen a s shaping the activities of organization members in fairly
deterministic ways.
In functionalism, new theory generation, per
se, is seldom practiced; theory refinement is the
watchword. Theory building, instead, typically
takes place in a deductive manner, starting with
reviews of the existing literature and operating

out of prior theories about organizational structure. Hypotheses are derived by selecting specific variables a s likely causes of some designated effect. Such hypotheses a r e tentative
statements of relationships that either extend
prior theory in a new direction, propose a n explanation for a perceived g a p in existing knowledge, or set up a test of competing possible explanations for structural relationships. Data are
collected with instruments and procedures designed according to the hypotheses formulated;
analyses a r e mainly quantitative. Variables,
categories, and hypotheses all tend to remain
c o n s t a n t o v e r t h e c o u r s e of the theoryelaboration processes. The result of these processes is either the verification or falsification of
the hypotheses, with theory building occurring
through the incremental revision or extension
(or occasionally, rejection) of the original theory.
Comparisons of theory-building approaches
across the paradigms are displayed in Table 1.
Table 2 shows some of the ways that analogous
steps in the theory-building processes usually
differ across paradigms. Each table is presented
a s a prototypical representation; neither is held
to be exact, exhaustive, or invariant.
The domain of organizational theories a n d
theory building enlarges considerably if the assumptions of these paradigms, each of which
can produce a different perspective on a given
topic of study, are taken into account. Indeed,
variations in theories relating to the notion of
structure show that there is more to learn than
any single view can account for. The assumptions, vocabularies, and interests (Rao & Pasmore, 1989) of the paradigms shape not only the
conceptions of "structure," but also theorybuilding approaches to understanding andlor
influencing those conceptions. Thus, each produces its own version of "truth" (Astley, 1985).
Therefore, given the multifaceted nature of organizational reality, consideration of theories
from alternative paradigms is needed (Hassard,
1988).Then, a question of interest becomes: Are
there any relationships among these differing

Table 1
Paradigm Differences Affecting Theory Building

EXPLAIN ~n order to

CRITIQUE ~n order to
CHANGE (achieve
freedom through
revision of

To IDENTIFY sources of
domlnatlon a n d

PERSUADE in order to
GUIDE revolutionary

regularities a n d TEST
~n order to PREDICT

practices (achleve
freedom through
revlslon of structures)

Theoretical Concerns

Theoretical Concerns

Theoretical Concerns

Theoretical Concerns







theory-building approaches? Put differently and

more provocatively, can the paradigm boundaries be bridged?

Bridging Across Multiparadigm

Theory-Building Approaches
Multiparadigm approaches offer the possibility of creating fresh insights because they start
from different ontological and epistemological
assumptions and, therefore, can tap different
facets of organizational phenomena a n d can
produce markedly different a n d uniquely informative theoretical views of events under study.
One of the consequences of multiparadigm approaches, however, is a potentially unwieldy
proliferation of theoretical views. Although a
greater abundance of theories can contribute to
our understanding of multifaceted organiza-



tional realities, the fundamental incommensurability of the paradigms often leads to a fragmentation and provincialism in the field (i.e., scholars refusing to consider theories that have their
origins in other paradigms). We would prefer to
encourage a more positive proliferation (cf. Feyerabend, 19751, wherein scholars develop more
comprehensive views by examining and, if possible, accounting for the work of alternative paradigms. For that reason, it is useful to explore
possibilities for constructing bridges across paradigm boundaries that are ostensibly impenetrable.
Bridging Across Paradigm Boundaries

Are paradigmatic boundaries permeable?

We argue that to a limited, but conceptually crucial extent, they are. Although the central assumptions of the paradigms clearly are at odds,

the boundaries between them tend to be illdefined a n d "blurred" (cf. Bochner, 1985;
Geertz, 1980). Indeed, it is obvious that the paradigmatic dimensions (subjective/objective and
stabilityichange) are actually continuua, making it difficult, if not impossible, to establish exactly where one paradigm leaves off and another begins. In a strict sense, then, the paradigms do not constitute hard-and-fast domains.
The boundaries between paradigms are therefore more usefully conceived a s transition zones.
The discussion of bridging across these
blurred transition zones is facilitated by employing second-order concepts (Van Maanen, 19791,
which are explanatory constructs used to describe dimensions of "scientific" understanding
(as compared to first-order concepts, which are
manifested by the people experiencing a phenomenon). (See Bacharach, 1989, for related
discussions.) Second-order concepts can help
clarify possibilities for communicating across
paradigm transition zones, because it is at this
level of abstraction that related or analogous
concepts become more evident. We again employ the notion of structure a s a focal concept to
discuss the possibilities for bridging across transition zones.
lnterpretivist-Functionalist Transition Zone. In
the interpretive paradigm, which presumes a
subjective reality, we saw that theoretical discourse often takes place in terms of structuring.
If any bridge is to be drawn with functionalism,
which presumes a n objective reality and, thus,
objective social structures, some connection
must be made between these concepts. A number of authors have addressed this point, and
the most promising ideas fall under the rubric of
structurationism (Barley, 1986; Giddens, 1979;
Poole & McPhee, 1983;Ranson et al., 1980;Riley,
In brief, structuration theorists focus on connections between human action (in the form of
structuring activities) and established organizational structures (cf. Riley, 1983). Proponents of
this theory do not treat structuring a s separate
from structures; they consider social construc-

tion processes together with the objective characteristics of the social world. Simultaneously,
they recognize that although organization members use generative rules to produce organizational structures, such structures serve to influence a n d constrain the structuring activities
themselves. Structuring a n d structures are thus
placed on equal footing by showing how social
structures emerge from structuring activities and
become external and influential on subsequent
structuring processes (cf. Mehan & Wood, 1975).
Structure is therefore conceived simultaneously
a s "a flow of ongoing action and a s a set of institutionalized traditions or forms that reflect and
constrain that action" (Barley, 1986, p. 80).
Hence, structure is both the medium a n d the outcome of interactions (Giddens, 1979).
Structurationism serves a s a means of bridging a g a p between subjectivist and objectivist
views of related notions (cf. Barley, 1986). It thus
occupies a n intermediate position on the subjective-objective continuum and spans the interpretive-functionalist transition zone. The net effect of this view is that structuring a n d structure
are not seen a s exclusive concepts simply because they reside in different paradigms; or, a s
Poole and Van d e Ven (1989) framed it, structuration resolves a n apparent paradox between
action and structure. Thus, a link is provided for
bridging the two paradigms (which already
share a concern with maintenance of social order, or at least a lack of concern with changing
Functionalist-Radical Structuralist Transition Zone. The bridge between the functionalist
and radical structuralist paradigms is arguably
less problematic to establish. First, these paradigmatic differences occur along a regulationchange dimension that might be more usefully
characterized in terms of degree of change
(ranging from incremental to radical change,
rather than from stability to radical change).
Second, this is a dimension primarily involving
ideology, rather than fundamental differences
in ontological and epistemological stance like
those associated with the subjective-objective

Table 2
Paradigm Comparison of Steps Toward Theory Building


Opening Work
What are the ~ssues?
What are the research
What are data?
Where to find data?
How to record data?
Data Collection

according to what is
relevant to them In
Provide a description at
the first and sometimes
at second level of
Identify the relations
between concepts at
first level or across
levels of abstraction
Validate wlth Informants
through new data
Identlfy the emerging
concepts and
Identify what was
already known
Theory Building
Show how it all flts


Structuralist Paradigm


Humanist Paradigm

Opening Work
What are the ~ssues?
What are the research
How is the topic a
''potentlal" special
case of a grand

Opening Work
What are the ~ssues?
What are the research
What are data?
Where to find data?
How to record data?
Data Collection

Data Collection
accordlng to a grand

according to what is
relevant to them;
pertaining to deep
Provlde informatlon at the
first level of abstraction

Reflect on what makes
people construct thelr
world the way they do
Unvell how deep forces
Influence the flrst level
of abstractlon
Identlfy whose interests
are served

Use speciflc instances to
further validate the
Identify the sources of
domination and the
potential points of
Theory Building
Showlng how the praxls
should change

Theory Building
Show how the level
of consciousness
should change




Opening Work
What are the issues?
What are the research
What do we know?
What IS missing?
What are the relevant
theories and

What are data?
Where to find data?
How to measure data?
Data Collection
accordlng to the
Evaluate the significance
of the data accordlng to
lnitlal problems and
Theory Building
Show how the theory IS
refined, supported, or
Show what it tells the
sclentlfic community
and the practitioners

dimension. The central issue has to do with functionalism's orientation toward regulation (and,
thus, with a n implicit managerial focus) a s contrasted with radical structuralism's activism (and
advocacy for a n underclass).
The essential difference turns on the question
of what one does with theory and findings about
the role of organizational a n d societal structures. Conceptually, the application of activist
values could transform macro functionalist approaches into a form of radical structuralism. Although we see only limited similarity in the writings of these two paradigms (cf. Burrell & Morgan, 1979), this lack of similarity might occur
simply because of their markedly different outlooks. Radical structuralists clearly intend to engineer change, and their theoretical vocabulary
is strongly oriented toward that goal. On conceptual grounds, however, bridges across the
regulation-change boundary are less difficult to
Radical Structuralist-Radical Humanist Transition Zone. Radical structuralism and radical
humanism share the value for activism a n d
change. Their proponents differ (usually)in their
levels of analysis a n d in their assumptions about
the nature of reality, with the former assuming
underlying, objective class and economic structures and the latter assuming the subjective, social construction of deep structures at a somewhat more micro level. These disparate assumptions can be bridged at the transition zone,
for reasons similar to those offered for the bridge
between interpretivism a n d functionalism.
Through a number of intellectual endeavors,
theorists have constructed concepts related to
structurationism to deal with the subjectiveobjective duality; these include negotiated order
(Strauss, 1978), reflexivity (Garfinkel, 1967; Mehan & Wood, 19751, structuring structure (Mehan, 1978; Ranson et al., 19801, and relative independence (Layder, 1982), all of which relate
in one form or another to the relationship of
structuring and structure.
Layder's (1982) notion of relative independence, for instance, provides a way of thinking

about phenomena that are subjective vis a vis

those that are relatively more objective. There
are some phenomena that occur in the world of
immediate experience. When people interact,
for example, their interactions are a n ongoing
accomplishment from which meaning transpires and structuring occurs. In contrast, when
we look at the context or environment within
which these people are interacting, structuring,
and ascribing meaning, we can recognize that
these phenomena occur in social systems that
can be treated a s "objectively real" (e.g., organizational structures or power hierarchies). Although these social systems might have been
constructed by past human agency, over time
they are treated a s facts or objective realities by
the people who live within them. Everyday
meanings become institutionalized into rules,
rites, and ceremonies (Meyer & Rowan, 1977),
a n d everyday structuring becomes treated a s
a n objective dimension of organizations (e.g.,
formalization, centralization). Those systems are
therefore relatively independent of the immediate social construction processes. Thus, relative
independence and structurationism are related
ways of bridging the objective-subjective transition zone between radical humanism and radical structuralism.
Radical Humanist-lnterpretivist Transition Zone. Similar to the bridge between functionalism and radical structuralism, the bridge
between radical humanism and interpretism is
easier to establish, again for reasons having to
do with orientation toward change. Interpretive
research generates theory to describe the structuring of the meaning systems a n d organizing
processes of informants (cf. Weick, 1979). Because of the shared subjectivist assumptions
with radical humanism, there is a straightforward connection between the interpretivist concept of structuring a n d the radical humanist
concept of deep structure (which is taken a s a
reification of structuring processes). However,
radical humanists act on their knowledge of
deep structure by building theory to expose the
distortions caused by those reified structures

and by attempting to raise the consciousness of

the individuals concerned; interpretivists, in
contrast, fulfill their theoretical goals by providing detailed descriptions of the rule-based structuring processes. Indeed, some writers (Putnam
& Pacanowsky, 1983) treat these two perspectives a s belonging to a single paradigm, which
is labeled a s interpretism and divided into naturalistic and critical theory domains. Poole a n d
Van d e Ven (1989) also addressed this issue from
a level-of-analysis perspective. In any case, we
do not consider the regulation-change transition
zone a s particularly dense, a n d we believe
there are firm bases for arguing relative permeability across lt.
The preceding discussion suggests that there
are grounds for bridging across paradigm transition zones and implies that the paradigms are
not totally independent or completely isolated
knowledge-generating and theory-building systems. In a related vein, it is worth noting that a
number of approaches to social and organizational knowledge have a foot in more than one
paradigm. Action research, critical theory,
early-to-late Marxism, Weberian approaches,
and solipsism (see Burrell & Morgan, 1979) all
bridge paradigm boundaries to some extent.
The presence of these cross-paradigm ideas
represents permeability to a greater or lesser degree. To some extent, then, it would appear that
the paradigms are not completely incommensurable, because there are ways of understanding
important facets of one paradigm's view in terms
of another by focusing on the transition zones.
This conclusion, however, does not imply that
the paradigms can be collapsed or synthesized
into some integrated framework. Despite the
demonstrated possibilities for bridging across
blurred boundaries, permeability of the paradigms is confined essentially to the transition
zones themselves. The inherent character of the
paradigms a w a y from the transition zones
makes their theoretical tenets incompatible with
alternative views offered by other paradigms.
Their fundamental assumptions about the nuture of the social and organizational world, their

purposes a n d goals for constructing theory,

and, perhaps most important, the epistemic rhetorical bases a n d vocabularies used to communicate concepts (Cherwitz, 1977; Cherwitz &
Hikins, 1986; Nelson et al., 1987; Scott, 1967, 1977)
preclude any bona fide synthesis of competing
theoretical views into some general model or
convergence on some grand theory (Rorty,
The hope for such a synthesizing scheme is
misguided in any case because of the multlfaceted nature of organizational phenomena. For
the same reason, however, it is important to
avoid theoretical narrowness. Though synthesis
is not possible, consideration of a n alternative
avenue might be useful, that is, a path that develops a means for considering multiparadigm
mews together.

Bridging at a Metaparadigm Level

The lack of any possible integration or resolution at the paradigm level would appear to condemn organizational study to proliferationwith-fragmentation in building viable theories
concerning topics common to multiple paradigms. Is that consequence of paradigm incommensurability necessary? Or, might multiparadigm theoretical views be considered together
from some more encompassing perspective?
Given that a uniquely correct perspective cannot exist (Bochner, 19851, and given the multiplicity of organizational realities, a pluralistic,
multiple-perspectives view becomes a necessity
for achieving any sort of comprehensive view.
Such a multiple-perspectives view requires that
organizational theorists consider the set of theories relevant to a given topic from some viewpoint beyond that of a n individual paradigm.
Comparing a n d contrasting diverse paradigms
is difficult when confined within one paradigm;
looking from a meta-level, however, can allow
simultaneous consideration of multiple paradigms and their transition zones. Elevating to a
metaperspective is qualitatively different from
cross-boundary consideration. From this view,

the intent is to understand, to accommodate,

and, if possible, to link views generated from
different starting assumptions.
A multiple-perspectives view is not a demand
for integration of theories or resolution of disagreements or paradoxes (cf. Poole & Van d e
Ven, 1989) that inevitably emerge from theoretical comparison; rather, it is a n attempt to account for many representations related to a n
area of study (e.g.,organizational structure, culture, socialization) by linking theories through
their common transition zones. The various
knowledge claims thus assembled can constitute a multidimensional representation of the
topic area. Comprehensive understanding occurs only when many relevant perspectives
have been discovered, evaluated, and juxtaposed (Cherwitz & Hikins, 1986).
The notion of a metaparadigm view is roughly
analogous to the notion of triangulation to
achieve confidence in observations in more traditional approaches to theory building. The multiple-perspectives view implies a kind of rnetatriangulation not across methods within a single
theory or paradigm, a s is currently in vogue, but
across theories a n d paradigms. The intent here
is to expand the concept of triangulation beyond
the usual connotation of accuracy, or the finding
of similarity (cf. Jick, 1979),to encompass the notion of seeing how paradigmatic theorizing is
similar, how it is different, and how it can facilitate a more comprehensive portrayal of organizations.
Figure 3 graphically represents the notion of
bridging at a metaparadigm level. It also suggests that any metaparadigm perspective is
nonetheless rooted in a specific paradigm, depending on the ground assumptions of the observer. Furthermore, it represents the paradigm
boundaries more appropriately a s blurred transition zones. From this level, the theorist can
consider his or her preferred second-order representations, derived from research and theory
within a given paradigm, with those from other
From a vantage above the plane of the para-

digms, it becomes evident that analogous concepts can emerge despite incommensurable
paradigmatic bases. A representative example
is again available from our running theme; all
paradigms employ central formulations using a
"structur-" root (structuring in interpretivism,
deep structure in radical humanism, class structure in radical structuralism, organizational
structure in functionalism, a n d structuration in
the objective-subjective transition zones). Consider the "discoveries" about structur- that are
available from a simultaneous multiparadigm
view (which reveals a complementarity in paradigm-based conceptions, despite the distinctions in the paradigms that generated them and
the marked differences in vocabulary used to
build theories about them).
True to their assumptions, interpretive theorists assume that human agency is central to the
construction of rules for structuring activities.
Yet, given a n awareness of structurationist considerations a n d the functionalist perspective,
they can recognize that organization members
treat the result of their ongoing structuring process a s a n external, objective reality. Similarly
from the meta-level, functionalists can treat the
emerged structure in a comparable fashion a s
a n historical artifact of structuring processes,
emphasizing the reification of the emerged
structure a s a given, to be studied objectively.
Thus, users of both perspectives can, recognize
the benefits deriving from the alternative view,
without violating their own tenets. Meshing the
functional notion of structure with the interpretive conception of structuring produces a more
nearly complete picture of the phenomena.
Meanings a n d contexts are emphasized to the
functionalist, a n d relationships a n d consequences are emphasized to the interpretivist.
Similarly, the meta-level view facilitates a n
awareness to both interpretivists and functionalists that the emergent structure is not merely a
description of a phenomenon, but rather (from
the radical humanist andlor structuralist view)
one that could or should b e critiqued a n d

1. The shaded areas between the paradigms represent the blurred transition zones

2 The meta-level vantage posltlon represented by the ellipse is arbitrarily placed above the Radical Humanlst paradlgm to
connote that the vlewer typically is rooted in the assumptions of some paradlgm Yet the circle also represents the posslbllity
of multiple vlewers ideally from multiple paradigms

3 The directional arrows toward the plane of the paradigms represent the dlverse paradlgmatlc views available from the
meta-level vantage posltion (The perspective lines a r e not Intended to deplct convergence toward some vlewpolnt that would
represent integration of differing multiple views )

Figure 3. The metaparadigm perspective.

The overarching observation, however, is that
theorists who do not make similar assumptions,
who do not build theories in similar fashion, and
who do not do research in a similar way, nonetheless all tend to be concerned with a related
concept. They think of structure differently, talk
about it differently, ask differentquestions about
it, but they still are concerned with conceptually
related notions pertaining to structur-, which
suggests a key feature of metaparadigm consideration: organization study can arrive at complementarity despite disparity.
Astley a n d Van d e Ven (1983) pursued a re-

lated line of inquiry by developing debates between competing perspectives and demonstrating that deeper understanding results from the
comparison. There also a r e a number of specific
topics in organizational research a n d theory
building that have been studied from different
paradigmatic perspectives that are amenable to
a form of metatriangulation. Representations of
culture (cf. Smircich, 1983) stemming from the
functionalist paradigm (culture a s a variable)
and from the interpretive a n d radical humanist
paradigms (culture a s a root metaphor) exist
and are available for comparison at the meta-

level. All these representations produce distinctive insights, but none can stand alone a s any
sort of comprehensive view of organizational
culture. Similarly, socialization has been studied via functional analysis that has identified its
antecedents, stages, consequences, and so on
(Feldman, 1976), interpretive approaches that
have revealed adaptations by new organization
members (Louis, 1980; Van Maanen, 19731, and
radical humanist critiques that have portrayed
socialization a s a process used to influence newcomers toward some preferred organizational
interpretation (Buono & Kamm, 1983). Finally,
organizational communication has been studied
by means of critical approaches (see Poole,
1985; Weick & Browning, 1986), interpretive approaches (Putnam & Pacanowsky, 19831, functionalist approaches (Jablin, 1979), a n d indirectly by radical structuralists (Levi-Strauss,
Overall, the aim of the meta-level view is to
facilitate a n appreciation for (a) the possibility
that similarity is just not possible (i.e., for a n informed awareness of the benefits of diversity
a n d eclecticism in accumulating multiple
views-in other words, agreeing to disagree,
but at least knowing how and why the disagreements exist [a fulfillment of Geertz's (1 980, p. 174)
observation that "given the dialectical nature of
things, we all need our opponents"]) and (b) the
possibility that although different assumptions
were brought to bear on a given issue of study,
some similarities might nonetheless become evident despite differences in ontology, epistemology, a n d methodology (or at least similarities
that might not otherwise b e evident except
through consideration from a meta-level). Thus,
on the one hand it is clear that the different paradigms produce a striking degree of "similarity
despite disparity" in the study of structure. On
the other hand, only by adopting a meta-level
view can we discern how the different paradigms explain the notion of structure differently
(as well a s culture, socialization, communication, etc.).

The case for multiple paradigm representations is also evident from yet a different multipleperspectives approach. Consider the descriptive metaphors of organizations derived from
different paradigms. Organizations a r e machines, organisms, brains, theaters, interpretation systems, political systems, psychic prisons,
instruments of domination, a n d so on (cf. Morgan, 1986). Organizations can easily be conceived a s all these things simultaneously. The
simultaneous conception implies that these disparate views can exist together without necessarily assuming that the adoption of one set of
views precludes others, or that all of them must
somehow be integrated. One cannot declare a n
alternative-paradigm view correct and another
incorrect in any absolute sense. A view becomes prominent, not because of its advocates'
abilities to refute other views, but because of the
compelling nature of their arguments (cf. Nelson
et al., 1987) andlor their presentations (cf. Van
Maanen, 1988).

Implications of the

Multiparadigm Perspective

In a practical sense, multiparadigm perspectives have implications for organization theorists. Given that most (all?) theorists are rather
closely married to their own paradigms (as they
must be to construct theories that are paradigmappropriate), some steps can be taken to establish links among differing approaches to theory
building. Research teams can be designed to
include a member whose role is to consider the
possible contribution of theories from different
paradigms concerning the chosen topic of
study. By focusing on the paradigm transition
zones and engaging in discussions with representatives of other paradigms, links in a p proaches to theory construction can be uncovered. Similarly, interdisciplinary panels representing multiple paradigms can be formed to
bring alternative perspectives to bear.
Researchers also could conduct parallel stud-

ies of the same set of events (not the same data,

because the question of what constitutes data
about a given set of events differs by paradigm)
to see what similar or different views result. (See
Gioia & Sims, 1986, a n d Gioia, Donnellon, &
Sims, 1989, for a comparison of the same events
studied from the perspectives of two different
paradigms.) Another possibility is simply to account for the perspectives of observers and theorists whose works are devoted to a focus on
cross-paradigmatic a n d metaparadigmatic
overviews (e.g., Giddens, 1982; Morgan, 1986)
a s a way of seeing possible links among theories
a n d ways of juxtaposing or meshing alternative
theoretical perspectives into multifaceted theoretical views of organizational phenomena.
In a broader sense, and of more practical relevance to our conduct of organizational study,
faculties can develop recruiting strategies that
attempt to achieve some level of paradigm diversity and balance in their makeup to try to
ensure that multiparadigm viewpoints are represented in research and theory building. Finally, doctoral-level training in philosophies of
social science that encourage multiparadigm
awareness (e.g., Holland, 1990) would facilitate
bona fide consideration of multiple perspectives
in future theory-building efforts. All these approaches encourage multiple thought trials from
different perspectives and enhance creative theory building (Weick, 1989).

Recapitulation and Conclusion

Given the relatively recent recognition and
acceptance of different paradigms of organizational study, it is important to evolve approaches
to theory building that are consistent with the
basic assumptions of each paradigm. We have
argued in favor of both greater expansion and
more accommodation of multiple approaches to
theory building in organizational study. Because a multiparadigm perspective on theory
building is likely to result in even more differentiation with the dysfunctional potential for paro-

chialism, we have suggested ways that bridging between paradigms might be accomplished
a n d ways that simultaneous consideration of alternative views might be achieved.
We h a v e concluded that because of the
blurred nature of the transition zones between
paradigms, it is possible to construct bridges
that link apparently disparate concepts together
in these zones. Yet, we have also concluded that
paradigmatic synthesis, per se, is not possible
because of the basic incompatibility of paradigmatic assumptions, vocabularies, and goals. As
a n alternative avenue, however, we have proposed a metaparadigm perspective for exploring the conceptual grounds for accommodating
different approaches to theory building. Such a
view allows a more comprehensive consideration of multifaceted organizational phenomena, especially where topics of study have apparent analogues (structure) or complementarity (culture, socialization, communication).
Multiparadigm approaches to theory building
can generate more complete knowledge than
can any single paradigmatic perspective. The
discussion of the metaparadigm perspective is
a n attempt to deal with the intellectual provincialism that occurs when one accepts paradigms a s fundamentally incommensurable and
noncomparable and, therefore, proceeds with
only one perspective without attempting to account for disparate views. Viewed from a metalevel, the dismissal of possibilities for integrating
paradigm-based theories does not preclude the
possibility of comparing those theories-of considering alternative theories in juxtaposition, either to discern theoretical links or simply to have
a n informed awareness of disagreement. Our
approach is aimed at exploring argument,
counterargument, and accommodation despite
fundamental differences.
Finally, in terms of Whetten's (1988)distinction
between a contribution of theory and a contribution to theory, the multiparadigm approach
can offer both. It offers the potential contribution
of theory when applied to theory building within

any given paradigm. In a different sense, it also

offers a contribution to theory because it fosters
a n awareness of multiple approaches to the theory-building process, with the consequent potential of constructing alternative theories about

the nature of organizational phenomena. In

general, however, the multiparadigm view implies a n essential broadening of the conception
of theory and of the theory-building process itself.

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Dennis A. Giola (DBA,Florida State Universityl 1s Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior In the
College of Buslness Administration, Pennsylvania
State University.Correspondence concerning this artlcle can be sent to him at the Department of Management and Organization, 403 Beam BAB, Pennsylvania
State University, University Park, PA 16802.
Evelyn Pitre (doctoral candidate, Pennsylvania State
Unlversity) is chargee d'enseignement, Service de
l'enseignement de l'adminlstratlon et des ressources
humaines at &ole des Hautes ptudes Commerciales,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
We would like to thank Chris lohnstone, Grant Miles,
and Linda Trevino for their suggestions and encouragement on previous drafts of this manuscript.

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Multiparadigm Perspectives on Theory Building
Dennis A. Gioia; Evelyn Pitre
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Oct., 1990), pp. 584-602.
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Administrative Science as Socially Constructed Truth
W. Graham Astley
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4. (Dec., 1985), pp. 497-513.
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Central Perspectives and Debates in Organization Theory

W. Graham Astley; Andrew H. Van de Ven
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Jun., 1983), pp. 245-273.
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Organizational Theories: Some Criteria for Evaluation

Samuel B. Bacharach
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Oct., 1989), pp. 496-515.
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Technology as an Occasion for Structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT Scanners and

the Social Order of Radiology Departments
Stephen R. Barley
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1. (Mar., 1986), pp. 78-108.
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The Case for the Natural Science Model for Research in Organizational Behavior and
Organization Theory
Orlando Behling
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1980), pp. 483-490.
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Organizations: A Dialectical View

J. Kenneth Benson
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1. (Mar., 1977), pp. 1-21.
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Building Theories from Case Study Research

Kathleen M. Eisenhardt
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Oct., 1989), pp. 532-550.
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Alternative Perspectives in the Organizational Sciences: "Inquiry from the inside" and
"Inquiry from the outside"
Roger Evered; Meryl Reis Louis
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 6, No. 3. (Jul., 1981), pp. 385-395.
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A Contingency Theory of Socialization

Daniel Charles Feldman
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Sep., 1976), pp. 433-452.
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Toward a Radical Framework for Practicing Organization Science

Peter Frost
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1980), pp. 501-507.
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Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Methods: Triangulation in Action

Todd D. Jick
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Qualitative Methodology. (Dec., 1979), pp.
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Surprise and Sense Making: What Newcomers Experience in Entering Unfamiliar

Organizational Settings
Meryl Reis Louis
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2. (Jun., 1980), pp. 226-251.
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Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony

John W. Meyer; Brian Rowan
The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 83, No. 2. (Sep., 1977), pp. 340-363.
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Reality as a Scientific Strategy: Revising Our Concepts of Science

Ian I. Mitroff
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1980), pp. 513-515.
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Paradigms, Metaphors, and Puzzle Solving in Organization Theory

Gareth Morgan
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4. (Dec., 1980), pp. 605-622.
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The Case for Qualitative Research

Gareth Morgan; Linda Smircich
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1980), pp. 491-500.
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Using Paradox to Build Management and Organization Theories

Marshall Scott Poole; Andrew H. van de Ven
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Oct., 1989), pp. 562-578.
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The Structuring of Organizational Structures

Stewart Ranson; Bob Hinings; Royston Greenwood
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1. (Mar., 1980), pp. 1-17.
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A Structurationist Account of Political Culture

Patricia Riley
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Organizational Culture. (Sep., 1983), pp. 414-437.
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Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis

Linda Smircich
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Organizational Culture. (Sep., 1983), pp. 339-358.
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The Fact of Fiction in Organizational Ethnography

John Van Maanen
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Qualitative Methodology. (Dec., 1979), pp.
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Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination

Karl E. Weick
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Oct., 1989), pp. 516-531.
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